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Why most panel discussions are a bit disappointing (and how to do a really good one)

30 November 2023 minute read

Ian Dickie
Managing Director

Ah! Panel discussions.

On the face of it, they should be the highlight of every conference.

A hand-picked group of qualified experts from diverse organisations; a plurality of views; audience participation; stimulating debate and candid insights.

As a format, it’s an oldie but a goodie. Invite the right participants and every seat in the auditorium should be filled.

So why is half your audience using this time to get coffee, check their mails and call the office?

Because most of us get panel discussions a bit wrong

I’ve put together hundreds of panels over the past 25 years. I’ve moderated some myself and I’ve sat through plenty more. Here’s what I’ve learned (often the hard way) about why they fail, and how to do them well.

Broadly speaking, there are six reasons why panel discussions tend to suck. And none of them are the fault of the format itself.


The number one problem with panel discussions is that the protagonists think they only have to turn up, have a spontaneous discussion and it’ll be great.

Typically, the organiser identifies a broad topic, invites a group of really smart people who know about said topic, rents five chairs and that’s pretty much the extent of the preparation.

Which is why most panels are doomed from the outset.

When a single presenter is on stage, they are the only one responsible for the content. Consequently, there is huge, unambiguous pressure for that person to own the stage and deliver a good experience from start to finish.

With a panel, that responsibility is spread out among multiple people: the host, the panellists, and even the audience – who are often relied upon to come up with questions on the fly.

Most speakers will spend hours, if not days, preparing for a presentation. But ask that same person to join a panel? Chances are, they’ll just rock up and hope the moderator knows what they’re doing. Reader, I used to do precisely that.

Bad moderator

Moderating a panel discussion is actually really hard.

In fact, it’s way harder to find a good moderator for a panel than it is to find a good presenter on that same topic. Why? Because wrangling multiple opinions and egos into short snappy answers that are both helpful and entertaining for the audience is a massive challenge.

It takes confidence, poise, research, experience, social skills, subject knowledge and wit to do it well. And that’s a lot to expect in one individual. Most organisers tend to think ‘Jeff knows all the players in [TOPIC], let’s ask him to chair the panel’. With predictable results.

Bad panellists

From experience, panels are often treated as the minor leagues within conference content. If an organiser is unsure if someone’s up to the job of delivering a good 30 minute presentation on their own yet, they’ll often try them out on a panel.

And to be fair, some aspiring speakers have the same idea and regard panel discussions as the first rung on the thought leadership ladder – assuming there will be less work and less pressure.

If anything, the reverse is true. Panellists need to be able to assert their opinion concisely and without much prompting. They should be able to disagree without offending. They need a deep knowledge of their vertical and the confidence to be OK with being challenged or cut off in full flow.

Unprepared panelists

Not to be confused with bad panellists. Even good panellists have a tendency to show up underprepared for the gig.

They might know their topic and be capable of contributing to a quality discussion, but more often than not, there’s been little preparation on the part of the organiser or moderator to clarify what will be covered in detail during their session, and who’ll handle which facets of the topic.

Ideally the organiser should lead everyone through a preparatory discussion of:

  • Which questions will be asked?
  • Which questions has the moderator not thought of?
  • Any topics to be avoided?
  • Which recent news might impact on the discussion?

A little group email or conference call can go a long way to getting everyone on the same page and thinking about what they’re going to say and how that fits in to the overall dynamic.

Bad questions

The wrong moderator can ask a lot of bad questions. So can most audiences.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat there as the moderator asked every question to every panellist in turn, inadvertently demonstrating the law of diminishing returns to a room full of people quietly losing the will to live.

Another common mistake is starting off the discussion at a really shallow level – asking basic introductory questions, on the assumption attendees will have little prior knowledge of the topic. Think about it! The audience for most business or technical conferences will have a deep, advanced grasp of anything you’re covering in a panel. That’s why they registered!

Why do so many moderators waste 50% of the time covering ground everyone in the room is already familiar with, when they could get straight to the detailed, contentious part of the discussion. That’s what every audience is praying for!

Opening up questions to an unmoderated audience is also asking for trouble. Yet most events still do it. It only takes one beginner to ruin the discussion for an advanced audience, and vice versa.

How many times have you listened incredulously while some guy asked a question which was less of a question and more of a lengthy pitch for the company he works for or his ‘personal brand’?

Also, I know professors who can ask a question for five minutes without, you know, getting to the question.

Too broad a topic

Broad topics give rise to the same problem as elementary questions. If there’s too much ground to cover or too many directions to go off in, the whole panel loses focus. And when this happens the opportunity to expand an attendee’s perspective is quickly lost.

Even when the title of a panel is out of their control, a good moderator can channel the conversation in a narrower direction. Sadly, most don’t.

The more focused the topic, the deeper panellists can dive in and extract interesting insights and opinions. Leave it broad, and no one’s quite sure what level they should be addressing.

These are all reasons why a great format and knowledgeable subject experts are often magically transformed into an entirely forgettable hour of repetition, overlap and fluff.

But it doesn’t have to be like that way.

Here are 10 top tips to transform your next panel discussion and get your community talking about your conference for all the right reasons.

Image of a discussion panel underway

1 Get the best moderator you can

I like to start with a statement of the obvious, and your moderator is the key to the whole thing. A good moderator can drag valuable insights from even the most mediocre of panellists.

They should know the topic and the audience well. But more importantly, they should have aptitude at running a panel.

Journalists from industry publications often make the best moderators. Not only do they have a good sense of what the issues are, they’re also quick to pick up a complex topic and they’re used to pinning down experts, cutting through the fluff and getting answers to questions.

Failing that, someone who chairs committees or working groups and is used to managing discussions, can be another good bet. Always get recommendations and see if you can access a video of them doing their thing before you commit.

2 Keep introductions brief

State your objective at the outset. Don’t write a long-winded introduction. Two sentences will do. Why is this topic important now, and what do you hope to accomplish within the next hour.

‘With all of the publicity surrounding generative AI right now, everyone is thinking about the impact on jobs in the creative industries. Our objective today is to share some of the thinking about how AI will evolve to change the work of marketing agencies and the way we interact with clients.’

And when it comes to introducing panellists, be as brief as you can, especially if the audience is holding a programme brochure or app with lengthier bios in it. Three lines is the absolute longest anyone’s introduction should be. No one cares where each panellist worked 23 years ago, or how you first met them.

3 Embrace debate

It surprises me that lots of conference organisers worry about conflict in their panel discussions. They think everybody should get along. But that’s a recipe for disaster as far as your audience is concerned.

In a successful panel, panellists are encouraged to disagree and debate points of contention early and often.

So, find out beforehand what questions your participants will disagree on. Make sure those are your starting points for the discussion to get the energy going early. Never be afraid to stir the pot. Civilised but lively debate can be the best way to draw out the real value from the people you have on stage.

4 Ask challenging questions

Discourage your moderator from throwing softball questions. It can be good to surprise panellists a little with something contentious that you haven’t prepared them for.

One trick a colleague of mine used to deploy was to ask each of them to give him two questions they would want to hear the other panellists answer.

For a panel to really fly, the audience needs the authentic sense that the participants are being pushed to reveal more than they perhaps meant to at the outset. This is the quality that can transform your event from one-of-many to ‘must attend’.

5 Beware moderators who just want to look smart

Plenty of moderators act as though they’re also panellists and this usually bad.

Just as a conductor would never whip out his cello and start playing a solo, so the job of the moderator is to make the panellists look smart by playing to their strengths and drawing great performances from each. When a moderator starts chiming in or rebutting panellists, the balance gets thrown off. You just can’t play both roles at once.

So be wary of moderators who like to talk more than they like to listen.

6 Tailor questions to each panellist

Always prepare tailored questions for each panellist designed to exploit their individual strengths and expertise. Don’t just ask them all the same question in turn. It gets boring and the last person in line is seldom left with anything useful to contribute.

When you ask a question, two answers are plenty, unless a third person is dying to jump in. Instead, ask a related question, ask for a concrete example, or simply shift gears and ask your other panellists about something else. But keep it moving. Repetition is the ruination of many conference panels.

Image of a member of the audience asking a question

7 Don’t rely on audience questions

The moderator should prepare a long list of questions and review them in advance with the panel. They should ask the panellists for questions too – questions the panellists want to answer as well as any they might need to avoid for corporate / legal reasons.

Questions you get live from audience members can be (at worst) self-serving, or (at best) highly calibrated to the individual situation of the questioner. Your moderator should be trying to anticipate as many potential ‘use cases’ for insights generated by your panel, based on the roles and demographics of likely attendees, as possible. Preparation in advance is key. Don’t leave it to chance.

8 Get the audience involved early

Opening the floor to questions is risky, but you still want to use all that knowledge in the room to drive a better discussion.

So let the audience ask their questions beforehand, using your conference app or even a crowdsourcing service like Google Moderator. That way, attendees can propose and up-vote questions, so the moderator and panellists can focus in on the most popular challenges and interests of the audience, while avoiding marginal questions and timewasters.

9 Be prepared to be firm!

Your moderator needs to keep control and have some polite bridging / cut-off phrases ready to redirect a panellist or a questioner who goes off topic, or tries to turn it into more of a two-person conversation.

A good moderator not only knows how to cut off an over-loquacious panellist, they also know each individual’s strengths and can direct questions and rebuttals to the right panellist on the day.

The best moderators are those who actively listen and are prepared to interrupt panellists to ask for clarifications or even to provide some evidence or examples. Again, this is why a modicum of journalistic experience is valuable. If a panellist tries to breeze past an answer, a serious moderator will instinctively dig deeper and push for the real substance. And you can bet that’s what your attendees are rooting for.

10 Fail to prepare – prepare to fail

The difference between a great panel and a meh panel is all in the planning.

It starts with research. Read the blogs and other platforms that the panellists are active on to get an idea of where they stand on relevant topics.

Develop a long list of questions, then use your prep call with the panellists to whittle that down to the most interesting ones, and get them to add in better ones.

You have to prepare.

But don’t over-prepare.

Some moderators I’ve worked with seemed to imagine they were running a Congressional hearing, not a panel discussion. They’d hold pre-panel conference calls and write lengthy emails back and forth, hashing out the terrain each speaker was supposed to cover.

Yes, have a plan, but don’t try to micromanage, and resist the temptation to script everything.

Your goal is still to be a group of smart, engaging people on-stage having a dynamic conversation.

Personally, I’ve learned that sending your panellists a single pre-event email, listing three questions you plan to open with, and asking them if there are any other issues they think are important to cover, often gets me what I need.

At the event, get your panellists together and make sure everyone has met one-another. If this will be tricky, organise a group call or Zoom meeting ahead of time. Agree the plan but resist the urge to talk about what you’re going to say on stage. In other words, don’t rehearse! You’ll kill the spontaneity.

Done right, panel discussions can still be a highlight of any conference. Take the time to find a great moderator, get everyone on the same page and you can create a session that’s not only informative, but exciting and inspirational. The holy trinity of conference content.

Just don’t kid yourself it’ll happen by accident!